90 Seconds to Midnight: Understanding the Doomsday Clock 

by Ryan Zimmerman

‘Doomsday Clock’ is not the title of a James Bond movie, as much as it sounds like one. Founded by J. Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is an internationally recognized nonprofit organization that evaluates global security issues; their principal concern is the risk manmade threats like nuclear weapons pose to our world. The Doomsday Clock is an annual brief released by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board that measures the active threat to humanity’s survival in terms of minutes to midnight. ‘Midnight’ is essentially game over for humankind – our darkest hour, if you will. By that metric, we want that minute hand as far from twelve as possible. 

As you might’ve learned from 2024 Best Picture nominee Oppenheimer, the atomic bomb was invented in 1945 in a climactic culmination of the arms race to end World War II. A single atomic bomb has the power of tens of thousands of tons of TNT; since then, weapons like the hydrogen bomb have been developed that are better represented in millions of tons. These could completely destroy any modern city on the planet, and thousands of them sit armed and ready to fire at the press of a button. This makes total nuclear devastation entirely plausible. The deadly potential of modern technology only grows, which is why the Bulletin and the Doomsday Clock were established. As private people, information is often the only weapon we have, and it is best suited for self-defense. 

On January 23, the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board announced that the clock, which had moved from 100 seconds in 2023, would remain at 90 seconds in 2024 – the closest to midnight it has ever been set since its inception in 1947. The previous record for grimmest outlook was held by a period following 1953, the year of the hydrogen bomb’s invention. Back then, the clock rested at 2 minutes. In ’91, the end of the Cold War and introduction of the START agreement – a treaty between the United States and Russia to drastically reduce their nuclear arsenals – inspired a hopeful Bulletin to set the clock to 17 minutes. 

Since that promise of a new beginning however, international relations have once again deteriorated, as has the world’s climate. Efforts to cut down on nuclear power have halted completely since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, and 2023 was officially the hottest year we have on record. Joining these unfortunately familiar factors in the 2024 announcement are new ones, chiefly the Israel/Palestine conflict and rapidly developing (largely unrestricted) AI technology. 

Change is a constant; the boundaries of our world are perpetually shifting, and technology is ever expanding. It’s hard to recognize these changes as significant in our own lives when they feel so far away, but trustworthy sources like the Bulletin help keep us informed; they compensate for the lack of clarity in the media. Getting caught up in every claim of “the end is nigh” to be found online is nothing but stressful and time consuming – not to mention fruitless. We should not allow the constant barrage of information we’re faced with every day to dull our senses, nor to smother our hunger for a healthier world. As Bill Nye passionately put it at the 2024 announcement, “People, we can solve these problems. We can change the world. And we can move the minute hand back down here. Let’s get to work.”